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.
Washington did not openly encourage these developments, but neither did it do anything to restrain Islamabad from pursuing this dangerous course. At the time, American policymakers were quite confident that there could be no better foe of the Soviets than the orthodox Muslims; as far as India was concerned, despite being a leader of the nonaligned nations, New Delhi was widely considered to be closer to Moscow than to Washington. Some even considered India a socialist nation.
“¦Pakistan first tested its nuclear devices in 1998, many within the U.S. establishment had been fully aware that they were under development.
Thus, throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Pakistan remained the chosen, if wilful, prime ally of the United States against the godless Soviets and was rewarded with much money and a lot of arms. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent collapse of the USSR, Washington began to take a fresh look at Pakistan. What it saw was rather unsettling. Islamabad’s nurture and control of terrorist groups and its covert development of nuclear weapons caused the first chinks in Washington’s blind faith. In 1998, after President Clinton’s failed mission to stop then-Pakistani Premier Nawaz Sharif—like Zia-ul-Haq, a close ally of Saudi Arabia—from testing nuclear weapons, Pakistan virtually fell off of the Washington “trust list.”
Although Pakistan first tested its nuclear devices in 1998, many within the U.S. establishment had been fully aware that they were under development. But since Pakistan was heroically battling the Soviet Red Army next door, this apprehension was generally kept under wraps, though the issue emerged from time to time to embitter relations. The Pressler Amendment, for instance, enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1985, specifically prohibited U.S. assistance or military sales to Pakistan without annual presidential certification that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear explosive device. But according to journalist Seymour Hersh, it was a farce because Washington did not want to handcuff Pakistan during the West’s battle against Soviet communism. “The certification process became farcical in the last years of the Reagan administration, whose yearly certification — despite explicit American intelligence about Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program — was seen as little more than a payoff to the Pakistani leadership for its support in Afghanistan,” Hersh wrote in the New Yorker on 29 March 1993.
Once the Soviet Army had retreated from Afghanistan, in the fall of 1989, the George H. W. Bush administration handed a letter to Pakistani foreign minister Sahibzada Yaqub Khan demanding that Pakistan destroy the cores of its nuclear weapons, disabling the weapons. Pakistan did not do so. In retaliation, the U.S. then imposed sanctions and cut off U.S. aid. However, Washington almost immediately softened the blow, waiving some of the restrictions in 1991–1992. Further, military aid was allowed to get through. In 1992, Senator John Glenn wrote, “Shockingly, testimony by Secretary of State James Baker this year revealed that the administration has continued to allow Pakistan to purchase munitions through commercial transactions, despite the explicit, unambiguous intent of Congress that ‘no military equipment or technology shall be sold or transferred to Pakistan’” (International Herald Tribune, 26 June 1992). The sanctions were officially lifted later, a short time after the 9/11 events.
Pakistans “India card” played well in Washington, where Indias nuclear weaponisation had been fiercely opposed. The argument served to pry open the sanctions imposed on Islamabad and divert the issue of Pakistans bomb.
Despite periodic friction, U.S.-Pakistan relations stayed on the rails even if they did not move forward. Pakistan maintained that despite differences over the nuclear issue, the two countries should act to limit further damage to their relations. Bilateral ties, Islamabad argued, ought not be viewed though the single and exclusive prism of nuclear proliferation, and a second track should be evolved to make progress in areas of convergence. Pakistan and the U.S. shared a number of goals at the regional and global levels that made it essential not to allow relations to become hostage to a single issue, Islamabad pointed out.
Pakistan also argued that nuclear nonproliferation could only be advanced in the region on an equitable and nondiscriminatory basis and not by the imposition of penalties on one country while overlooking the nuclear conduct of the country that started the race in the first place—a smug reference to India, which had demonstrated its nuclear weapons capability in 1974. Pakistan’s “India card” played well in Washington, where India’s nuclear weaponisation had been fiercely opposed. The argument served to pry open the sanctions imposed on Islamabad and divert the issue of Pakistan’s bomb.
According to former Pakistani ambassador to the United States Maleeha Lodhi, another factor boosting the efforts to reengage during the 1990s was Pakistan’s economic liberalisation program. The country’s moves toward a market-based economy provided the impetus for charting new areas of collaboration in promoting trade and investment. Economic liberalisation became the vehicle for significant re-engagement and helped to extricate the relationship from the unidimensional nonproliferation groove in which it had been stuck, Dr. Lodhi said (The Pakistan–U.S. Relationship. Pakistan Defence Journal, April 1998).
The Seeds of Distrust
During the 1990s, Washington also noticed from a distance Pakistani intelligence’s and military’s role in assembling an anti-West group in Afghanistan, the Taliban, steeped in orthodoxy, and then helping them militarily to seize power in Kabul in 1996. Soon after, Washington noted that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden moved into Afghanistan after carrying out a series of terrorist attacks against the United States. By March 2000, when U.S. president Bill Clinton made a 14-hour stopover in Pakistan that was not identified as an official visit, relations between the two countries were greatly strained.
These reports make it evident that the trust level between the United States and Pakistan was then at an all-time low.
President Clinton’s agenda in his discussions with President Pervez Musharraf on that occasion was to urge his host to develop a timetable and a road map for returning to national-level civilian rule. President Musharraf summarily rejected the advice. Moreover, the visiting American president’s observation that the 1998 testing of explosive devices had not made Pakistan safer and his request for early signature of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty were heard, but elicited no response, reports indicate.
President Clinton also encouraged General Musharraf to use his influence with the Taliban government to bring Osama bin Laden to justice as soon as possible. He also raised human rights issues in Afghanistan and expressed his concern over the treatment of women and minorities. He pressed the general to do what he could, using his influence with the Afghan government to bring these violations to an end.
Pakistans cooperation continued to be identified at the policymaking level in the United States as the key in Washingtons efforts to eliminate the Taliban militia in Afghanistan and maintain an extremely shaky Hamid Karzai regime there.
These reports make it evident that the trust level between the United States and Pakistan was then at an all-time low. Unfortunately, the United States seems not to have had a clue as to how to improve that situation—even though it was clear that for Washington, the presence of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and the testing of nuclear devices by Islamabad made Pakistan a country to worry about.
The next point of inflexion in the relationship occurred on 11 September 2001, the day terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City and, almost simultaneously, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The events of 9/11 were a watershed in U.S.–Pakistan relations, beginning a new contradictory process of simultaneous distrust of, and dependence on, Islamabad in Washington.
Since 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in the winter of 2001, Washington’s policy toward Pakistan as its ally in America’s “war on terror” became so erratic that it appeared at times to verge on confusion. To many observers, the Bush administration improvised its Pakistan policy script as conditions in Pakistan progressed or regressed. In this latest phase, the wobbly bilateral relationship has involved the following features:
“¦Pakistani military and civilian Ã©lite also fear that the United States may collaborate with India, naÃ¯vely or deliberately, to weaken Pakistan, by supporting governments in Kabul”¦
- Pakistan’s cooperation continued to be identified at the policymaking level in the United States as the key in Washington’s efforts to eliminate the Taliban militia in Afghanistan and maintain an extremely shaky Hamid Karzai regime there. Whether Pakistan was positively and explicitly identified in this way or it merely seemed so in the absence of any other policy remains arguable. It is possible that Washington’s “policy” was sheer desperation.
- After procuring Islamabad’s continuing assistance to eliminate the Taliban from Afghanistan, the United States must protect Pakistan from a socio-political takeover by a Taliban-like orthodox Islamic militia, which made its appearance as early as in 2005.
- Washington would work toward bringing in a democratic system in Islamabad, albeit slowly and carefully, while acknowledging at every step the commitment of the present pro-Washington military leadership in Pakistan to the well-being of the United States. This eventually occurred in 2008, but not before the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. That assassination—and the tell-tale signs of the involvement of the Musharraf regime, on whom the Bush administration had depended without really trusting in its “war or terror”—further eroded U.S. trust in Pakistan.
- Washington must protect Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf physically from hostile forces within Pakistan and also make available to him some financial aid to help Pakistan’s flagging economy. Washington succeeded in this area, but the financial aid did not help the Pakistani people as much as it helped the Pakistani military.
Many walking the corridors of power in the United States are now concerned about the future of the U.S.–Pakistan relationship. Although none of these policymakers, or the analysts they listen to, have a clear view as to how to improve it, they have been busy formulating “what the United States must not do” rather than what the United States could do. An example of this is worth quoting at length.
They interpret Indias goals in Afghanistan as a strategy of encirclement of Pakistan, punctuated by the tactic of promoting instability among Pakistans restive Pashtun, Baluch and Sindhi populations.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 1 October 2009, the New America Foundation’s Steve Coll stresses that the success of Pakistan—”its emergence as a stable, modernizing, prosperous, pluralistic country, at peace with its neighbors and within its borders, and integrated economically in South and Central Asia—is obviously important, even vital, not only to the United States but to the broader international community.” Coll then points to “one obstacle to the emergence of such a Pakistan”—namely the deeply held views of the Pakistani military and security elite. But his subsequent explanation of these views reads like a justification.
For instance, one deeply held view within the Pakistani security services is that Washington will abandon the region once it has defeated or disabled al-Qaeda. “Pakistani generals correctly fear that a precipitous American withdrawal from Afghanistan would be destabilizing, and that it would strengthen Islamist radical networks, including but not limited to the Taliban, who are today destabilizing Pakistan as well as the wider region,” says Coll. “Alternatively or concurrently, sections of the Pakistani military and civilian élite also fear that the United States may collaborate with India, naïvely or deliberately, to weaken Pakistan, by supporting governments in Kabul that at best are hostile to Pakistani interests or at worst facilitate Indian efforts to destabilize, disarm or even destroy the Pakistani state.”
Coll continues: “The Pakistan military’s tolerance of the Taliban and similar groups is rooted in a belief that Pakistan requires unconventional forces, in addition to a nuclear deterrent, to offset India’s conventional military and industrial might. This self-defeating logic of existential insecurity has informed Pakistan’s policies in Afghanistan because Pakistani generals have seen an Indian hand in Kabul since the days of the Soviet invasion. They interpret India’s goals in Afghanistan as a strategy of encirclement of Pakistan, punctuated by the tactic of promoting instability among Pakistan’s restive Pashtun, Baluch and Sindhi populations.
“Pakistan has countered this perceived Indian strategy by developing Islamist militias such as the predominantly Pashtun Taliban and the Punjab-based Lashkar-e-Taiba as proxies for Pakistan in regional conflicts and as a means to destabilize India. As for the U.S. role, Pakistani generals see it as inconstant and unreliable, based on the pattern of here-and-gone U.S. engagement in the past, and they also tend to believe that the U.S. is today lashing itself, deliberately or naïvely, to Indian strategy in the region.”
In other words, in the service of stabilising Pakistan—and in the process the region—Coll virtually endorses Pakistan’s accusations that India is “promoting instability among Pakistan’s restive Pashtun, Baluch and Sindhi populations” and, as an adjunct, justifies Islamabad’s developing of terrorist jihadis in order to keep Pakistan’s “enemy,” India, from undoing Pakistan’s stability.
“¦the Obama administration has taken quiet steps to reassure Islamabad that the United States doesnt want to grab Pakistans nuclear weapons”¦
Another analyst, deputy editor of the Washington Post David Ignatius, likens the periodic on-and-off relations between the U.S. and Pakistan to a tempestuous couple falling “in and out of love, rather than maintaining a steady and dependable bond.” In a 4 March 2010 op-ed, “To Pakistan, Almost with Love,” Ignatius writes, “In the upbeat White House version, the first big success for the Obama administration’s new Afghanistan policy has come not in the battle of Marja in Helmand province but in Islamabad. Officials cite Pakistan’s cooperation with the CIA in capturing and interrogating top leaders of the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan’s new dialogue with India.”
He continues, “Pakistani officials agree that there has been a positive change in mood. They say the Obama administration has taken quiet steps to reassure Islamabad that the United States doesn’t want to grab Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and that it isn’t trying to smuggle in covert operators disguised as U.S. contractors. ‘It’s about getting back to trusting each other,’ says one Pakistani official.
“¦”promoting instability among Pakistans restive Pashtun, Baluch and Sindhi populations” and, as an adjunct, justifies Islamabads developing of terrorist jihadis in order to keep Pakistans “enemy,” India, from undoing Pakistans stability.
“But military and intelligence officials on both sides appear wary of over-promising what this new partnership can deliver. There’s greater confidence, they say, because officials know each other better. One U.S. official counts 25 high-level American visits to Pakistan since President Obama took office. One key administration official characterizes the relationship this way: ‘We have narrowed the gap in terms of strategic outlooks, and that has allowed a greater cooperation on the tactical level.’ But he cautions that it would overstate this rapprochement to call it a ‘strategic recalibration,’ as some White House officials have.”
Coll is one of many who have put a great deal of emphasis on strengthening U.S. relations with Pakistan. In the latter half of 2008, the Center for American Progress (CAP), widely acknowledged as a think-tank closely tied to President Barack Obama, urged the president-elect in a 71-page report “Partnership for Progress” to pursue its goals in Pakistan as part of a broader multilateral effort and a regional strategy designed to address Islamabad’s security concerns with Afghanistan and India. “The United States needs to make a shift from a reactive, transactional, short-term approach that is narrowly focused on bilateral efforts,” the report argued. “Instead, a more proactive, long-term strategy should seek to advance stability and prosperity inside Pakistan through a multilateral, regional approach.” The CAP report predicted that Pakistan “will pose one of the greatest foreign policy challenges for the incoming Obama administration.”
The CAP report carries weight since the organisation’s president and CEO is John Podesta, former President Bill Clinton’s last White House chief of staff, who had headed Obama’s presidential transition team since long before the election. Moreover, at least two of the report’s four coauthors—CAP’s Brian Katulis, a Middle East and South Asia specialist, and Lawrence Korb, a senior Pentagon official under President Ronald Reagan—are close to the administration, and Korb supported President Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan.